Features & Interviews
Interview: Jan van Schaik on Lost Tablets, The Minimalist Lego Sculpture Series
Based in Melbourne Australia, Jan van Schaik is an architect at MvS Architects, a researcher and senior lecturer at RMIT Architecture & Urban Design, and a creative sector consultant at Future Tense. He has two decades of experience designing award-winning prototypical public and residential buildings in both local and international settings, leading innovative research projects, and providing strategic advice and services to the creative sector.
In 2019, Jan founded the Lost Tablets sculpture series, which was named after ships found crewless and adrift at sea. These works visually express a tension between a universally recognisable children's toy and the grammar of architectural symbols. Jan's unique works comprise blocks of found Lego, which bear the marks left on them by their former owners. The shapes of the dynamic face are bound together by the tension between the expectation of what a Lego composition would usually prescribe, and the language of an imagined collective architectural unconscious rendering in memory of the ghost ship she mourns.
This week, The Artling had the opportunity to speak to Jan on his Lost Tablets sculptures, his creative process, and his journey in art.
I am a practising architect of over 20 years. I studied art before studying architecture, and have been making art casually all my life. The serious practice of making art about architecture began when I saw something that interested me in an object that I had made. So I made another, and then another. And these became the series I call Lost Tablets.
My creative process involves oscillating from intuitive composition to a structured plan, then back to intuition, and then back to a plan. This loop goes through many repeats until a work is complete. But before any of that can start, the raw material is collected. Piles of second hand Lego are sourced from around the world and sorted by colour. Next, a large pile of one colour is laid out on the desk in front of me and I start to experiment with new ways that two or three pieces might go together. I call these few pieces ‘the starter’. This is a moment of intuitive composition. In this moment, it is almost as if the pieces are speaking to me, telling me how they would like to go together. I have a sense that the works I make already exist in a parallel universe, and my job as an artist is to create an opening between that universe and this one, and drag them through. Once I have found a ‘starter’ for a piece a plan develops in my mind for how the work should develop. I follow this plan. But as the plan develops, the individual pieces exercise their own will on the plan and send it awry. And at this point, the intuitive process starts again. Perhaps the most important part of any process involving intuition is the act of stopping, standing back, looking, and trying to understand what it is that I have made. I will do this constantly throughout the making process. Once the work is 95% complete, I will look, and adjust, and re-look, over and over again. This means that the last 5% of making a work is often the part that takes the longest amount of time. As I reach this last stage I start to name the objects. The names I give them influence their final form. And I start to design the objects’ display mechanisms. These are sometimes steel shelves, sometimes wooden plinths, sometimes glass domes. The mechanisms of display are an integral part of the works, as they invite you to see them the same way I do.
Each Lost Tablet is named after a ship found crew-less adrift at sea, or sunk in mysterious circumstances. And some of them are named after abandoned satellites now in the graveyard orbit around the earth. The name of the series comes from the whimsical idea that perhaps the Ten Commandments were in fact Twenty Commandments, but Moses dropped one of the tablets on his way down from Heaven. I like the idea that the mysteries of the human condition are the result of some missing instructions. I am drawn to making these works as they are my expression, in architectural language, of the fumblings that we humans undertake in trying to understand the mysteries of existence. The Lego blocks interest me as a material because they are universally recognisable. Yet they are neutral. There is nothing that cannot be made with Lego. This means that the ultimate form the pieces take has nothing to do with Lego at all. Yet the fact they are Lego cannot be unseen. I like this conflict between the materiality of the objects and the meaning that the object has. This enables the Lost Tablets to be monuments of intangible meaning while also being immediately familiar.
Each of the objects that I make has embedded in them decades of teaching bachelor, masters, and PhD students, looking at buildings and cities, reading and writing about architecture, and designing prototypical public and private buildings. And years of looking at and collecting art. And woven through these are many years of being engaged in a dialogue with peers, colleagues and friends in the worlds of art, architecture, creative writing, philosophy, design, manufacturing, and construction. Without being actively engaged, and embedded in these rich cultural communities and environments my works could not even be conceived to exist. It is these that are the most important tools.
I feel driven, rather than inspired. The works I make are the only way that I can explore my own very particular questions about the peculiarities of existence. The list of artists that make work that I wish I’d made is a long one. To name a few: Fiona Abicare, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hany Armanious, Damiano Bertoli, Bjork, Jessie Bullivant, Adam John Cullen, Juan Davila, Richard Deacon, Jarrah Dekuijer, Jordan Devlin, Lotte Frances, Nikolaus Dolman, Joel Elenberg, Bryan Ferry, Frank Furness, Richard Giblett, Mira Gojak, Agatha Gothe Snape, Nathan Gray, Sean Griffiths, Nick Grindrod, Richard Hamilton, Irene Hannenburgh, Brent Harris, Patrick Hartigan, Bill Hawkings, Patrick Heron, Yolunda Hickman, Mark Hilton, Eliza Hutchinson, Raafat Ishak, Susan Jacobs, Natasha Johns-Messenger, Jessica Johnson, Pat Larter, Jocelyn Lee, Nigel Lendon, John Meade, Joanna Mott, Adam Nathaniel Furman, John Nixon, Bryan Spier, Laurie Steer, Justin Trendall, Andrée van Schaik, Leon van Schaik, Daniel von Sturmer, Peter Waples Crowe, Rachel Whiteread, paul Yore, Oscar Yanez, Lisa Young.
Probably answering this question. Well, that’s a joke of course. I don’t find being an artist a challenge, I find it liberating. Perhaps the biggest challenge I have ever faced was trying to find a way to explore my own curiosities about existence without making work. As soon as I began making work, the challenge of existential mystery became an enthusiasm for existential mystery.
‘Very nice, do another’. This was the advice famously given by Richard Hamilton to his students at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK in the 1960s. Embodied in the advice is the very important idea that an object can only become a work of art if it is part of an ongoing process of exploration and testing. I was obviously never a student of Richard Hamilton’s. My father was, and it was he that transferred this very important advice to me.
What my work says can’t be communicated in words. If it could, I would simply write it in words. This would be much easier. Words don’t suffice because words use the grammar of, in my case, the English language. The grammar of the language used by the works that I make are generated by, and embedded in, the works themselves. The works are a language unto themselves, and their meaning can only be understood by learning their language. I am myself trying to learn their language and understand their meaning. And this is why I make them in the first place. It is not my intention to avoid the question of what the explicit meaning of my works is. It is simply that the works are an expression of the search for meaning within the mystery of existence. They are an expression of the idea that, in order to attempt to approach understanding the unknown, new languages need to be created. The Lost Tablets are the language that I am attempting to create.
Installation View, Artworks by Jan van Schaik, Photo by Aaron Christpher Rees
I have explored many artistic mediums: Life drawing, ink on paper, etching, lost wax sculpting, oil painting, cardboard, balsa-wood, heat-based polymers, ceramics. However, I don’t consider any of these as part of the evolution. I was not able to see in any of those mediums anything that I thought worthy of pursuing. Each was a short-lived and failed experiment. I have not, and will not, publish these works. I don’t believe they ever developed to the point where they had a language of their own. They are not art, and my discarding of them is an important part of the evolution of my practice. My work as an architect is an important, and ongoing, part of the evolution of my work. My engagement with the curious, beautiful, poetic, practical, economic, cultural, and eccentric behaviours of the human beings that I encounter in professional life as an architect has an ongoing impact on the Lost Tablets project.
Click here to browse all of Jan van Schaik's artworks
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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